Not even the California Energy Commission is immune from a problem that can mess up any homeowner's holiday soiree - plug in too many electrical appliances all at once and you are apt to blow a circuit breaker. It happened today at the California Energy Commission's headquarters in downtown Sacramento just as the staff's annual chili cookoff was getting under way. Some 30 hot pots of various sizes and shapes were lined up on tables awaiting the appraisal of the competition's eight judges when someone realized the plugged-in pots weren't staying as hot as they should be. "The power is out. It sounds like a bad joke," said one cook.
As representatives of the State Department of General Services tried to trace the source of the problem and restore power, the judges pressed on undaunted, hoping to finish their assignments before the pots of chili turned cold.
Chilis were divided into three classes - vegetarian, traditional and gourmet, the latter the group to which I was assigned as a judge. The gourmet class included traditional Cincinnati chili, smelling and tasting strongly of cinnamon, a soupy Thai chicken chili sweet with coconut milk, and a turkey chili. The interpretation of "gourmet" was left to the competitors, most of whom seemed to think it meant chili considerably milder and simpler than the traditional bowl of red.
My favorite was entry No. 303 - "This Ain't No Girly-Man Chili" - which although in the gourmet division was more along the lines of a traditional chili because of its resonating meatiness, spiciness and sweetness. No. 303 also turned out to be not only the overall favorite of all the judges but the winner of the peoples' choice award, determined by commission staffers (who each paid $3 for a bowl they could refill as often as they liked until the pots were empty). In the four years of the competition, this was the first time that judges and voters agreed on the most deserving chili, which was made by Liz Shirakh, a commission analyst specializing in energy efficiency.
The best traditional chili was made by Kathy Hennigan, while the best vegetarian chili was made by Harriet Kallemeyn, also both commission emplyees.
Proceeds from the event - $800 was raised this year - go to two charitable programs, the commission's Gifts from the Heart, which provides year-end holiday gifts to the impoverished, and Loaves & Fishes' Sleeping Warm Project, which provides sleeping bags, plastic tarps, knit caps and ponchos for the homeless.
Power in the building, incidentally, was restored in time to provide employees with appropriately hot chili. "I could say that it left egg on our face, or maybe I should say chili," said the commission's information officer, Adam Gottlieb. Well, it was Halloween.